Executive agents have been employed in the conduct of American foreign policy throughout the history of the nation. The term "executive agent" denotes an individual appointed by the president, acting without legislative consultation or sanction, for the purpose of carrying out some specific function, often of limited duration. In some instances, executive agents have received instructions from and were directly responsible to the chief executive—that is, they reported directly to the president rather than through the secretary of state. The use of executive agents derives indirectly from the constitutional stipulation that the appointment of heads of regular diplomatic missions requires Senate approval, a procedure that frequently proves cumbersome and time-consuming and is especially inconvenient when politically sensitive issues are involved. As a result, even delegations including members of the Senate are routinely appointed without Senate confirmation, particularly for missions of short duration. This approach can be particularly valuable when the Senate is controlled by the opposition party. Distinct procedures are required for special missions responding to temporary situations, such as conferences, that necessitate prompt action. Congress recognized this fact by providing the president with a contingent fund for special expenses, and salaries of agents are normally drawn from this fund.
In practice, such individuals are sometimes considered to be the personal representatives of the president, as distinct from regularly accredited diplomats who are responsible to the secretary of state (though theoretically to the president through the secretary) and are regarded as representatives of the government of the United States. This may be a fine distinction that appears somewhat technical to the layperson, but it is an important differentiation in terms of function and operation, and one to which diplomats and governments are closely attuned.
That executive agents are employed for a wide variety of purposes, sometimes to make contacts possible outside regular diplomatic channels, reflects the flexibility of the office. In the strictest sense, the use of an executive agent rather than a regular ambassador is a pragmatic device available to the chief executive whenever expediency requires some fresh or supplemental channels. Consequently, the functions of agents and the nature of their office vary with circumstances and with presidents.
Given the flexible nature of the instrument and its dependence on presidential initiative, it is scarcely surprising that executive agents tend to be employed most extensively by strong chiefs of state. Presidential dynamics is thus a key element in the use of agents and their powers, for chief executives who prefer to act independently and conduct their office in a vigorous manner utilize this device to assume some degree of personal control of foreign policy. Consequently, the greatest use of such envoys has occurred under Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt, both rated as strong executives by historians. Whether the agents supplement or supersede regularly accredited diplomats depends upon the president, and is generally indicative of his vigor and the nature of his relations with the State Department.
It is no accident that the two presidents making the most extensive use of agents, Wilson and Roosevelt, sought to conduct personal diplomacy, attempted to circumvent relatively weak secretaries of state appointed because of domestic political considerations, and mistrusted the personnel of the regular Foreign Service. Both employed executive agents as a means of placing the conduct of key aspects of foreign policy directly in presidential hands, effectively circumventing the regular diplomatic corps and the State Department. Since there is obviously a limit to the number of situations to which a president can effectively devote personal attention, the appointment of this class of envoys can also provide an indication of the importance attached to a particular problem, nation, or region.
The type of individuals presidents appoint and the basis of their selection affect not only the operation of the institution, but also the degree of controversy surrounding its use. Since the very nature of the position renders it a dependency of the president, the chief executive is free to select the individuals according to any criteria he chooses. Full congressional debates regarding the constitutional powers involved have been rare, although a notable exception occurred in the Senate in 1831. Even in this discussion, the question was not whether the president had the right to appoint such agents, but rather what functions they could perform and their relation to regular diplomatic representatives. If the president seeks simply to secure the temporary services of an individual with recognized expertise in a given realm, whose talents would not otherwise be at the disposal of the government and whose abilities are especially suited to a specific task, little dispute will ensue. Similarly, agents assigned to discrete or minor tasks seldom breed controversy.
It is a different matter, however, when the chief of state sends a personal representative to supersede a regularly accredited head of mission. In such instances, the agent clearly displaces an individual appointed with the consent of the legislature, allowing more direct control by the executive. If the agent is dispatched to an important theater of foreign policy on a highly visible or sensitive mission, the likelihood that such an action will arouse the ire of Congress is increased. A president also assumes a greater risk of controversy when relying upon agents because of suspicion about the objectives of the regular diplomatic personnel or as a means of placing the matter in the hands of an individual more ideologically compatible with his own views. This is particularly true if the individuals employed as agents are political figures associated with the chief executive or political contributors. These agents are likely to be controversial figures whose employment can be expected to antagonize the opposition party. Although the resultant disputes often focus on the agents, the basic issue involves the policies pursued by the president.
The controversy regarding the activities of Wilson's surrogates in Mexico provides an example of such a situation. The issue was not the use of agents per se, but rather the uses to which they were put. Wilson was clearly employing executive agents to circumvent the regular diplomatic officers, who disagreed with his policy. This was particularly evident in the type of individuals he dispatched on such missions, for they were invariably "deserving Democrats" who were politically associated with the president or Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan. Wilson felt that the most important qualifications for a prospective appointee were loyalty and similarity of outlook, which he considered more significant than knowledge of the area involved or the possession of any diplomatic skills. It is scarcely surprising that the appointment of partisans to carry out partisan policies provoked political controversy. Franklin D. Roosevelt, by contrast, although he also employed executive agents extensively and was himself scarcely less of a storm center than Wilson, managed to minimize such disputes through the selection of men of stature and experience who were clearly well qualified, and by employing them only on missions that obviously required special procedures.
Early Examples One of the most common uses of executive agents has been in dealing with nations or governments with which the United States did not at the time maintain normal diplomatic relations. In these circumstances, recourse to some special type of temporary representative is plainly necessary for the transaction of any business, including the inauguration of formal diplomatic contact. Inevitably, such agents were common during the early days of the Republic, when the United States had not yet been accorded recognition by many of the world's nations, and during the nineteenth century when the United States maintained regular diplomatic missions in only a small portion of the world's capitals. Indeed, the first representatives of the United States in the immediate aftermath of independence had the status of simple diplomatic agents. Technically, the initial representatives were congressional rather than executive agents, since they were dispatched during the days of the Continental Congress and the Articles of Confederation, prior to the existence of a separate executive branch. These individuals were appointed by the Committee of Secret Correspondence and later the Committee for Foreign Affairs, and only appointments to regular diplomatic missions were considered by the full Congress. Thus, the use of agents whose designation was not subject to confirmation by Congress actually predated the existence of the executive branch.
Four of the nation's first five chief executives—George Washington, John Adams, James Madison, and James Monroe—found it necessary to employ executive agents extensively. Among the earliest agents was Colonel David Humphrys, whom President Washington dispatched in 1790 to conduct negotiations leading to the establishment of diplomatic relations with Portugal. A series of similar emissaries was employed during the 1820s to arrange the nation's first treaty with Turkey. Executive agents were also utilized extensively in the intermittent negotiations with the Barbary states of North Africa from the 1790s to the 1820s, an instance where piracy in the Mediterranean required negotiations prior to the establishment of formal diplomatic relations. Similar appointees were also employed during the early nineteenth century in establishing initial contact with the newly independent former Spanish colonies in the Western Hemisphere. In Latin America, individuals such as Joel R. Poinsett—an appointee of President James Madison—conducted reconnaissance missions and represented U.S. interests during the period when the ability of the new republics to maintain themselves was still in doubt and when formal recognition was delayed by negotiations with Spain regarding the purchase of Florida. Temporary representatives proved convenient for this type of mission and have served as the instrument of this class of exchanges throughout the existence of the United States. In the 1970s Henry A. Kissinger played a pivotal role in establishing relations with the People's Republic of China while serving as President Richard M. Nixon's national security adviser.
Purposes and Functions Agents are often employed as a means of dealing with nations or governments with which formal diplomatic contacts have been severed or temporarily suspended. This is another situation in which agents are well suited to a particular need, for preliminary negotiations are often a necessary prelude to the renewal of formal ties. When used in this manner, agents can serve as a vehicle to conduct negotiations regarding the legitimacy of the new government and the conditions attached to formal recognition. Such exchanges are obviously of temporary character and must be handled through some vehicle other than a regularly accredited representative, for the appointment of an individual with the latter status would in itself constitute de facto recognition of the government in question. This also applies in instances when it proves necessary to negotiate with the leaders of rebel movements. Talks with rebel leaders must take place outside normal diplomatic channels, since diplomatic relations with a rebel movement would constitute an unfriendly act toward the government of the nation involved.
This last circumstance became common in the latter quarter of the twentieth century when the United States, and indeed all the principal powers of the world, increasingly found it necessary to deal with civil wars in order to prevent conflicts from spreading and becoming full-scale international wars. The distinction between internal affairs and the maintenance of international peace and security became blurred in the twentieth century, and especially since the end of the Cold War. That is because modern conflicts, which involve weapons that are far more destructive than those employed in earlier centuries, often start as internal rebellions and then spread across borders to affect neighboring nations.
Missions of this type have included efforts to protect American citizens and their rights in areas controlled by unrecognized governments or rebel factions, simple negotiations regarding the procedures for the renewal of regular relations with new governments resulting from internal uprisings, and attempts to impose preconditions as a price for full recognition. In cases involving new governments resulting from civil war or revolution, if the break in relations is of recent origin and short duration, the appointment of a special agent is often unnecessary, since members of the regular diplomatic service still on the scene can serve as the vehicle for such exchanges. In instances where the use of such individuals proves inconvenient or where they have been withdrawn as part of the break, the appointment of an executive agent is essential.
Agents of this nature also date from the initial days of the nation, when President George Washington dispatched Gouverneur Morris to England in 1790 in a futile effort to open negotiations seeking a commercial treaty and the establishment of regular diplomatic relations. Since at this time there was no foreign service, the designation of agent was a matter of title and indicated a less formal status and a temporary mission. In the twentieth century, executive agents were most often employed in dealing with the newly emerging nations of the so-called Third World, where governmental instability and internal turmoil is more frequent. This is particularly true in the Western Hemisphere, where the United States is more likely to attempt to exact concessions as a precondition for recognition. Such efforts have frequently included attempts to secure pledges of elections or the resignation of a government that has recently seized power. Wilson's dispatch of John Lind—a former Democratic governor of Minnesota and a political associate of Bryan—to Mexico in 1913 was one example of this type of mission. Lind, who had no prior diplomatic experience and no previous contact with Mexico, was appointed "adviser to the American Embassy in Mexico City," but in reality served as the personal representative of the president of the United States. In this manner he superseded the regularly accredited diplomats in that country. Acting as Wilson's spokesman and "confidential agent," Lind conducted negotiations with the incumbent government of General Victoriano Huerta, which included the presentation of demands that stipulated Huerta's surrendering his office. This is an instance in which Wilson, who was suspicious of the regular foreign service personnel, chose to employ his own representative because he preferred an adherent of his policies as his instrument. While controversial at the time, such situations have become far more common in the post–Cold War era.
In some instances more formal negotiations are employed prior to recognition. One such cased was the so-called Bucareli Conference in 1923, when executive agents designated as commissioners representing the United States and Mexico held an extended "exchange of impressions" whose "sole object" was "to report afterwards to their respective high officials." The use of the title "commissioners" served to allow negotiations with a government that had seized power through a coup d'état and had not yet been recognized officially by the United States. Because the conferees were executive agents, the sessions did not technically constitute recognition of the Mexican government of General Álvaro Obregón, but they did prove to be the vehicle for eventual recognition through a resulting memorandum of understanding that enabled the satisfactory settlement of the questions regarding damage claims and oil land. Executive agents are frequently used in comparable situations, but it must be noted that although they are a useful vehicle for this type of negotiations, such envoys are but one mechanism for completing the necessary arrangements.
At times, executive agents have even been employed to conduct negotiations for an early peace with nations with which the United States was at war. Executive agents are the only appropriate vehicle for such delicate discussions. The outstanding example of this type of mission was that of Nicholas P. Trist, chief clerk of the State Department. He was dispatched by President James K. Polk to Veracruz in 1847 to accompany the military expedition of General Winfield Scott, which had landed at that port and was advancing toward the Mexican capital. Since the United States had entered the war for limited and clearly delineated objectives and had already established effective control of the territory it desired, Polk hoped that Trist's presence would enable negotiations to be conducted simultaneously with the military campaign and possibly render the completion of the latter unnecessary. The use of an executive agent was essential because Mexican reaction was uncertain and because it was necessary to maintain secrecy as a means of circumventing a mounting domestic sentiment to extend the original war aims. Trist's mission resulted in an incongruous combination of intermittent combat and negotiations that failed to produce results until after the military expedition had fought its way into Mexico City.
During the early twentieth century, executive agents were frequently employed as the instruments of intervention in the domestic affairs of Latin American nations, a practice extended to other regions of the world during and after the Cold War. In numerous instances this constituted a conscious attempt to avoid military intervention through mediation between internal factions or the imposition of a political settlement. Admittedly this entailed political intervention, but such action was far less controversial than the landing of troops to terminate an internal conflict or to protect American citizens. Such roles were particularly prominent in the Caribbean and Central American regions, with which the United States was especially concerned because of their significance for the security of the nation and because of the necessity of protecting the approaches to the Panama Canal.
The mission of Henry L. Stimson to Nicaragua in 1927 illustrates the use of an agent to mediate between internal factions. Civil war broke out in that Central American republic within a few months of the withdrawal of a U.S. Marine detachment that had kept the peace while serving officially as a legation guard. The United States considered it necessary to act to preserve peace in Nicaragua, owing to the potential in that country for an alternative canal route. Stimson went to Nicaragua as the personal representative of President Calvin Coolidge to mediate between the Liberal and Conservative Party forces in an effort to secure an agreement providing for a cessation of hostilities and the transfer of the dispute from the battlefield to the ballot box. The special envoy negotiated with the leaders of both factions, notwithstanding the fact that this entailed dealing with both the rebels and the incumbent government, which had been installed with the support of the United States and was still recognized.
The mission of General Enoch H. Crowder to Cuba from 1921 to 1923 constituted a similar effort to substitute political intervention for military action. Crowder was dispatched to Cuba in 1921 by the Wilson administration in an effort to forestall hostilities over a disputed election when Liberal ex-president José Miguel Gómez challenged the reported victory of his former vicepresident, Alfredo Zayas y Alfonso, who now had the support of the Conservative Party. Crowder was continued in his position as the president's personal representative by Warren G. Harding. Crowder's open intervention and the implied threat of force prevented a civil war but failed to satisfy the opposition. When a compromise agreement proved impossible, Crowder remained in Cuba as a virtual viceroy, in effect an American governor of Cuba, overseeing and dictating to that nation's government. Such methods prevented an insurrection but constituted forceful intervention. It is interesting to note that Crowder's position became far less imposing when in 1923 his title was changed from the "president's personal representative" to ambassador to Cuba.
In addition to mediation and political intervention, executive agents have been employed as a means of establishing and maintaining contact with rebel movements during times of turmoil, when it is apparent that such factions have established effective control of substantial territory. Although such agents often participate in mediation efforts, in some instances the primary purposes are to protect American lives and property within rebel-controlled territory, exert some influence upon the policies of the insurrectionist leaders, and gather and report to Washington information regarding the revolution and its leaders. The most notable example of this practice occurred in Mexico during the Wilson administration. While Mexico was torn by civil war, Wilson dispatched numerous personal representatives and confidential agents to that country, usually stationing such individuals at the headquarters of two or three of the factions simultaneously. This practice resulted in a confusing welter of overlapping jurisdictions, with agents at times reporting on each other's activities, yet it also served to promote contacts between the rebel factions for the purpose of ending the conflict. It was necessary to utilize executive appointments because only in this manner could Wilson maintain representatives in more than one of the camps and attempt to influence the factions without technically conferring recognition upon them.
Other agents have been employed on similar missions. For example, William M. Churchwell was dispatched late in 1858 to confer with Mexican leader Benito Juárez in the midst of civil war. He arrived early in 1859, at a point when several factions claimed control of the nation and Juárez had been driven from the capital. Churchwell's mission paved the way for formal U.S. recognition of the Juárez regime.
In conducting negotiations or investigations of special delicacy it may be inexpedient for the president to inform Congress and the public in advance by requesting confirmation of a formal appointment. In such cases, presidents have found executive agents a convenient device. The mission of Robert D. Murphy to French North Africa during World War II is an example. Although ostensibly an American consul, Murphy was in fact dispatched as Roosevelt's personal representative to determine whether French officials in North Africa were loyal to the German-dominated Vichy government, and to conduct negotiations to arrange for their cooperation with an Anglo-American invasion of North Africa. Clearly, the success of a mission of this character depended on secrecy, which could not be maintained through a congressional confirmation proceeding.
Executive agents are also useful to the president when a disagreement with Congress precludes a request for advance approval. President Grover Cleveland's dispatch of former Representative James H. Blount on an investigatory mission to Hawaii in 1893 was such an instance. A revolution had led to the installation of a new government, dominated by American landowners and settlers, that promptly negotiated a treaty of annexation with the United States. Despite considerable sentiment for approval of the treaty, Cleveland withdrew it from the Senate and dispatched Blount, whose report confirmed that U.S. naval forces had aided the rebellion. The knowledge that the United States had been implicated in the revolt led to rejection of the annexation accord.
President Ulysses S. Grant's use of his private secretary, General Orville E. Babcock, as his personal representative and special agent in Santo Domingo in 1869 constituted one of the first instances of the executive employing a member of his personal staff to conduct confidential negotiations in the face of congressional disapproval. Grant was convinced of the advisability of acquiring Samaná Bay as a naval base, and dispatched Babcock ostensibly on a mission of investigation. Babcock negotiated a series of protocols providing for a lease on the bay and a virtual protectorate over the Dominican Republic, even though this action exceeded his instructions. The accords meticulously stipulated that they constituted merely the "basis" for a "definitive treaty" to be negotiated subsequently by a duly accredited envoy. Consequently, the accords had the character of an agreement between the two presidents acting personally, rather than between their respective governments. Grant later sent his secretary back to Santo Domingo to sit in on the formal treaty negotiations as an unofficial observer who was "fully possessed of the President's views." Despite the fact that the negotiating powers were technically vested in the regularly accredited American minister in Santo Domingo, Babcock conducted the negotiations while the minister merely signed the accord. The effort proved futile, as the resulting treaty was rejected by the Senate.
Executive agents also serve as channels of direct communication with other heads of state in instances when particular circumstances require the bypassing of normal diplomatic channels, either as a matter of expediency or as a means of emphasizing the special importance of the talks. Usually, this involves the dispatch of a prominent individual of considerable stature who is closely associated with the chief executive. Frequently, the envoy is one of the president's principal advisers. This indicates that the emissary is speaking for the president; consequently, his or her mere appearance as a negotiator demonstrates the importance attached to the matter at hand.
Woodrow Wilson resorted to this type of agent to bypass normal diplomatic channels when he sent Colonel Edward M. House to Europe in 1916. House's mission was to offer a plan designed to terminate World War I or, failing in that, to bring the United States into active participation in the war. The dispatch of House made possible direct negotiations with the British secretary of state for foreign affairs, Sir Edward Grey, while also ensuring that only the two executives and the emissary were aware of the precise contents of the proposal until the completion of the negotiations. This was vital, because had the Germans learned of the talks, the result would have been immediate United States involvement in the war at a time when it was not yet ready to enter the conflict. Since House was a close ally of Wilson, his dispatch on a mission automatically endowed it with considerable importance, for in this instance the president's personal representative was indeed an individual who could be presumed to speak fully for him.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt also employed a close personal associate as a special envoy when he sent Harry Hopkins to Moscow to initiate discussions regarding Lend-Lease aid to the Soviet Union shortly after Nazi Germany invaded Russia in 1941. The president chose to use a separate channel both to ensure confidentiality and to demonstrate, through the selection of an individual so closely associated with him, his desire that the envoy's mere appearance on the mission be regarded as a symbolic commitment. This approach succeeded in assuaging the suspicions of Soviet premier Joseph Stalin.
Roosevelt used a similar method in dealing with Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek of China, who proved highly resistant to pressures exerted through normal diplomatic channels. Roosevelt resorted to a number of special officials in addition to the regular ambassador, ranging from Owen Lattimore, a political adviser to Chiang, to General Patrick J. Hurley, a personal representative. Hurley later became ambassador to China, although his influence as special representative was greater. President Harry S. Truman resorted to similar tactics when he dispatched former chief of staff General George C. Marshall to China during 1945 in an unsuccessful effort to convince the nationalist and communist factions to negotiate an agreement to terminate their civil war. President Richard M. Nixon sent his personal foreign policy adviser and head of the National Security Council staff, Henry A. Kissinger, on several missions, in particular in 1969 for negotiations in Moscow regarding the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty. President James Earl Carter employed a special envoy, Sol Linowitz, to deal with the negotiations regarding the future of the Panama Canal.
Executive agents have also been utilized in dealing with international organizations, where they function as unofficial observers rather than as full delegates. Harding employed such individuals to establish contact with some agencies of the League of Nations and several other European conferences as a means of circumventing the isolationist sentiment in the United States. This procedure was necessary since—as a consequence of isolationism—the United States was not officially a member of the League and therefore could not appoint an ambassador to it. Such unofficial observers are usually members of the regular diplomatic service who are stationed at nearby posts, and function in a dual role.
The principal variables in the institution of executive agents are the type of mission, the particular individual involved, and the method of reporting to the chief executive. Of necessity, the purpose of the mission is one of the primary determinants of the activities of the agent and the importance of the effort. The personality and prominence of the agent are other significant factors. Dispatch of a prominent individual who also functions within the government, particularly if he is closely associated with the chief executive, endows the mission with significance. It is scarcely surprising that such individuals are most frequently employed in missions to the heads of governments of important powers or allies. The use of members of the regular Foreign Service can also affect the institution. Although such individuals come to their missions with greater diplomatic expertise, their appointment has less dramatic force, and consequently less impact, than the dispatch of a prominent individual or political figure. Accordingly, regular diplomatic officers tend to be employed as executive agents principally on missions requiring some degree of secrecy, as their movements are less conspicuous.
The channels through which executive agents file their reports and receive their instructions are also significant determinants of their activities. Some agents are of such stature, or are so closely associated with the chief executive, that they report directly to him, bypassing the Department of State. Such individuals obviously have greater latitude, and acquire the stature of spokespersons for the chief executive. Yet the impact of their labors is somewhat limited by this very fact, since the Department of State and its diplomats in the field are often unaware of the details of the mission until after the fact. In some instances this lack of communication has caused serious difficulties. At the least, it prevents the regular diplomatic officers from providing assistance or advice, and it can also delay the implementation of the resulting agreements. On the other hand many agents, usually those from the regular diplomatic corps or those not closely associated with the president, file their reports through the Department of State. Indeed, some of these individuals, although executive agents, are not in fact the president's personal representatives, but rather officials on special mission under the control of the Department of State, just as regular diplomats are.
During the second half of the twentieth century, the employment of executive agents has become increasingly institutionalized, reflecting a trend throughout the government. The growth of the Washington bureaucracy, which has expanded rapidly as the government assumes more extensive functions, has necessitated a formal and complex structure that has affected even so flexible an institution as that of executive agents. The formalization of a White House staff with distinct foreign policy advisers has been a gradual development occurring primarily after World War II. Many presidents have employed their own advisers since Woodrow Wilson's use of Colonel Edward House, but these were ad hoc arrangements until World War II. Then, their use was formalized so that foreign policy advisers became an ongoing presence in the White House in all administrations.